This blog originally appeared in The Hill.
In January 2015, El Salvador’s media reported live as almost 50 residents of an apartment building furiously packed up everything they could before fleeing. This was not an organized evacuation for an oncoming hurricane or some other natural disaster. It was a frantic movement of people who had been ordered to get out of their homes within 24 hours or be killed by the dominating gang in that area of Mejicanos, a municipality that runs alongside San Salvador. Their fear was not unfounded. Just 10 days before, the child of a pupusa vendor was killed outside the apartment building. In 2010, just six blocks away, a bus was set on fire with the passengers still inside. Seventeen people died.
Images of fathers carrying mattresses over their heads were broadcast on television and quickly spread across social media. The government’s anti-gang police unit arrived and told residents to pray. Their presence did nothing to stop the desperate flight of 17 families made up of men, women, and children. There were no good choices for where to go next – gangs rule the territories where the working poor live, and families would likely be moving into an area with the same gang and therefore be subject to the same threats, or they would try to move into an area controlled by another gang, and be immediately suspicious and under threat.
Today I am in San Salvador. It is the beginning of my second week here with my Refugees International colleague documenting the situation of the tens of thousands of Salvadorans who have been internally displaced by gangs and other organized criminal groups. No one knows exactly how many Salvadorans have had to flee their homes due to the escalation of threats or after rapes or murders in the family, but a recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre put the number above 280,000. What we do know is that by 2012, Salvadorans were in the top 10 nationalities receiving asylum protection in the U.S., and that last year, more than 16,000 unaccompanied Salvador children arrived at the U.S. border, many seeking protection from gang-based persecution.
Last year, I issued a report on internal displacement due to organized criminal groups in Mexico. There is no question that the vast majority of Mexicans fleeing this type of violence – and it could be well over 1 million people – seek refuge internally. I had initially thought that El Salvador would present the same pattern, but having spoken to the displaced themselves, non-governmental organizations, government officials, and international organizations over the last week, I question that hypothesis. El Salvador is the size of Massachusetts, and much of the country is under the de facto control of gangs, if not their actual control. The government has very little capacity to rein them in, and even less ability to protect those threatened or victimized by gangs. It is primarily the working class who are targeted because they live in gang-controlled territories, and even with flight, they can’t afford to get away from them.
Reacting to the unprecedented arrival of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border last year, President Obama proposed a $1 billion aid package to support economic and development programs, and therefore counter the power of gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While an important shift away from funding primarily military and police activities to thwart the “drug war,” it won’t likely get at one of the most important drivers for external displacement – El Salvador’s inability to provide security and humanitarian assistance to people inside the country right now. People on the run from rape and death threats don’t have the ability to wait months or years for a massive societal shift that may finally root out the underlying drivers of violence.
Long-term assistance is needed in El Salvador and should include a focus on building the economic, justice, and education systems. But El Salvador also needs immediate assistance to respond to the humanitarian needs of those fleeing serious human rights violations – including food, secure shelter, access to education and healthcare, and the ability to take part in the workforce. Without funding for these emergency measures, Salvadorans will continue to go north, because they have no other option.